The urinary excretion of leukotriene E4 (LTE4) was measured in subjects presenting for emergency treatment of airway obstruction. A total of 72 subjects presenting with airway obstruction performed peak flow determinations before and after three treatments with nebulized albuterol given at 20-min intervals. Of these subjects, 22 more than doubled their peak flow rates, while 19 failed to increase their peak flow rates more than 25% during the treatment period. These groups were designated "responders" and "nonresponders," respectively. Urinary LTE4 excretion was determined in 16 of the 22 responders and 12 of the 19 nonresponders as well as 13 normal subjects by precolumn extraction, analytic reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography, and enzyme immunoassay. In the normal subjects the urinary LTE4 excretion was significantly (p less than 0.0001) less than the urinary LTE4 measured in the responder subjects, but not less than the urinary LTE4 excretion in the nonresponder group (p = 0.071). The enhanced recovery of LTE4 from the urine of subjects with acutely reversible airway narrowing is consistent with a bronchoconstrictor role for the cysteinyl leukotrienes in spontaneous acute asthma.